Leading in Complexity

Leadership ain’t what it used to be. The image of a great white man at the top of the pyramid is, we can only hope, gone forever. The question now is “What will take the place of that image?” What is leadership in a world of open boundaries, multiple differences, and massive interdependencies? Consider the icons of twenty-first century management: Tony Hsieh of Zappos; Jeff Omidyar of EBAY; Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook; and Lucy Peng of Alibaba. Each is successful, and each is unique. What is the secret of their success?

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We know that human systems self-organize to respond to conditions as they change. Boundaries emerge and dissolve as services are outsourced, work goes virtual, and companies merge. Tensions build and resolve inside and outside organizations as differences in resources, needs, and perspectives drive change. Connections are made and broken as technology, communications, and partnerships adapt to changing conditions. Successful systems adapt to exploit changes in their internal and external environments. The leader is “in charge,” but what does that mean in today’s chaotic economic, political, and technological environments?

We believe the role of the leader is to set conditions for others to succeed. Success includes lots of different patterns: productivity, sustainability, health, efficiency, effectiveness, engagement, and maybe even happiness. Any leader, at any level, holds the responsibility to see, understand, and influence these patterns, so individuals, teams, organizations, and communities can succeed and thrive.

This may be an innovative and powerful description of leadership, however, in HSD, we never stop at the description. We reach beyond understanding to explore options for action. So what does it mean to set conditions for success in times of dynamical change? What is the Adaptive Action that sets conditions for success? Adaptive Action is an interactive, three-step process that asks three questions. WHAT are the patterns in the current moment? SO WHAT tensions and possibilities are locked inside those patterns? NOW WHAT can you do to shift the conditions and leverage the power in the patterns? A leader uses this simple process to set conditions for success.


What are the differences that make a difference to our success at this particular place, time, situation?

This question is the essence of competitive advantage. The answers vary over industry, organization, time, technology, and market conditions. Global currency markets, supply chains, educational systems, demographic, and many other factors influence how a leader answers this question.

As the leader of HSD Institute today, as I consider our collective future, I am focusing on three fundamental differences that make a difference to our success:  Generations, praxis, and relationship.

  • We are concerned about communication across generations because our core community is moving into later life. Our worldviews developed in and belong to another time, while our younger colleagues will create the future. We need to understand how Millennials and Gen-Xers see, understand, and influence patterns in their human systems.

  • Praxis is the balance that we strive for between theory and practice. In earlier stages of the development of HSD as a field, we acknowledged the relationship between the two. At the same time, we organized our institutional work to deal with the two separately. This separation allowed us to align with the perspective held by the rest of the world. For a successful future, we need to take the praxis of our day-to-day work into the design of our products, services, and organization.

  • Relationships are always important, but one facet is drawing our attention now. Some parts of our community are tightly connected to the Institute, staff, and core work of HSD. Others are more removed, and still others who should be connected are outside the sphere of our connection and communication.

In my leadership decisions these days, I am focusing on these three differences. Earlier in our history, other things were primary: Consistency, quality, geography, medium, and audience were important. My special role in the community was, for a time, a difference that made a difference to the evolution of our success. Over time, as conditions shifted and the organization became more mature, my attention has shifted to this set of three differences that inform action today to shape our success tomorrow. The old differences don’t go away; they become part of the practice and habits, while the new ones invite innovation and change.


So what potential options for action exist in the space that is defined by these significant differences?

Identifying the significant differences is just the first step in the leadership journey. The second step is to explore options for action that lie between the extremes of each one. This step is driven by what we call Interdependent Pairs. A single pair frames the problem/solution space in terms of two extremes. Barry Johnson calls these polarities.[1] They also appear as dilemmas, paradoxes, or dichotomies. We call them Interdependent Pairs because they never appear alone. Each dilemma is connected to others. As a group, multiple pairs influence the landscape within which a leader makes key decisions.

I understand my current leadership challenges in terms of three Interdependent Pairs:


Identifying two extremes within the differences helps me see a range of options for each. It opens up and makes much more concrete the choices that I can make for myself and for the organization.

This SO WHAT? also helps me see how the pairs influence each other. For example, we expect Millennials to be much more practice oriented than earlier generations. Given the average community, they sometimes feel excluded and move to the outside edges of the network. Many insiders are Baby Boomers, and most of them understand our commitment to the integration of theory and practice. We have no way to gauge the preferences or practices of individuals and organizations outside of our immediate circle.

This process doesn’t tell me what to do to help us be successful, but it does frame the question in terms of potential actions, so it sets the stage for . . . .


Now what will I do to leverage the energy locked within the Interdependent Pairs?

Leaders make thousands of decisions every day. Some seem important and turn out to be trivial. Others seem trivial in the moment and prove to be critical in the long-run. There is little time to consult a strategic plan or to work out a rational decision-making process. Alternatives, pros and cons, costs and benefits, risk analyses, and well-documented procedures are simply not practical for the majority of decisions a leader makes. On the other hand, decisions that support success are informed by some kind of coherent and reasonable framework.

The Interdependent Pairs create such a framework. Every decision can quickly be considered in light of an Interdependent Pair. Considering a continuum with the pairs at opposite ends, it is easy to see how major decisions can shift a pattern to favor one or the other. Even minor questions and short-term decisions can shift the system toward one or the other end of the continuum. When this happens often enough, the system begins to shift.

The pairs work best for leadership decision making when leaders:

  • Focus on a few. Interdependent Pairs will be most useful if you can remember them easily and refer to them quickly. Three is great, and you might be able to manage up to five, but after that you will have diminishing returns. Additionally, the reflection and dialogue that help you narrow the list will create shared understanding to support future decision making.

  • Don’t expect to control. The significant pairs you choose for focus are not the only tensions and patterns that drive success. Unless you choose to weigh yourself down with a long list of pairs, you will leave things out. Anything you leave out could rise up and disrupt your plans at any moment. That is the nature of complex systems.

  • Keep your peripheral vision. While you focus on one set, others may be emerging as significant to your clients or competitors. Continually scan the horizon to see what Interdependent Pairs might influence others who are critical to your success.  

  • Make them explicit. The more others know about the decision-making criteria, the more prepared they are to make decisions that align with those of leadership.

  • Review and revise them often. The Interdependent Pairs depend on the internal and external environments that will determine success. When the conditions shift, the primary concerns may need to be replaced with other, more relevant ones.

  • Build persistent pairs into policy, process, and practice. Some pairs frame the core identity of an organization. These should be embedded in the organizational culture through policies, practices, and processes. When patterns at all scales of the system incorporate the significant differences represented in the Interdependent Pairs, they become habitual.

  • Continue the Adaptive Action cycle. You can neither predict nor control how the system will respond to one of your choices. You may think you are moving the system toward greater stability, while you may, in fact, be pushing it to the brink of change. That is why every NOW WHAT? is followed immediately by the next WHAT? For effective leaders, every decision is made in the spirit of inquiry and Adaptive Action.

For us in HSD, questions around the Interdependent Pairs work as a kind of operating system. Will this decision influence our relationships across generations? What effect will it have on the integration of praxis? What difference will it make for those inside and outside our immediate circle? In a moment, the important implications of a decision can be identified and analyzed.

Our Interdependent Pairs influence many decisions, both large and small. For example, in the mediation across generations, we are convening young professionals across our network to inform our next cycles of product and service delivery. To bring theory and practice into closer connection, we have reframed our training, coaching, and consulting offerings as Adaptive Action Labs. In these labs, clients will integrate theory and practice as they address their own most sticky issues. Finally, we are revamping our website and developing a social media strategy to reach out to those who might choose to move closer into our community of HSD Professionals. At risk of stating the obvious, the social media strategy should also affect the generations and praxis pairs.

So leadership ain’t what it used to be. It is a continuous process of seeing tensions inside and outside the organization that influence success, creating a solution space out of those tensions, and using that framework to inform operational and strategic decisions. As I consider the stand-out leaders of today, I suspect they are masters of seeing significant differences and navigating the creative space between and among them. You can, too. What are the tensions that shape your leadership decisions? What benefit do you gain by making them explicit as Interdependent Pairs?

Let us know what emerges.

Glenda Eoyang


[1] Johnson, B. (1992). Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems. Middleville, MI: HRD Press.


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